The federal Liberal party has nominated advertising executive Grant Gordon as its candidate in the Toronto-Danforth riding, which was held by former NDP leader Jack Layton until his death last summer.

Gordon defeated his sole opponent, Greek-Canadian journalist Trifon Haitas, as a crowd of about 200 Liberal supporters gathered at Riverdale Collegiate Institute on Thursday.

Some Liberals had feared anti-abortion activists were trying to hijack the party, as a group calling itself Liberals for Life had been promoting Haitas to be the party's candidate in the March 19 byelection.

But CBC reporter Kimberly Gale said after the two men's speeches that the crowd seemed more responsive to Gordon, who garnered attention earlier this year when he made an unconventional online pitch for cross-party support.

The byelection in Toronto-Danforth, a riding just east of downtown Toronto, was necessitated by Layton's death last August.

'I'm going to think before I do'   

Gordon told CBC News after his speech that "it's very important that women are able to make their own decisions about their own bodies."

He said the Liberal Party is very clear on the issue.

"My opponent, I don't think he's a true Liberal to be honest. He joined the party in December."

Gordon said it was daunting at first to campaign in Layton's riding, but heard from voters that they had voted for Layton as a person, rather than the NDP. "It means that their vote is in play," he said.

In his victory speech he promised to "think before I do."

Bennett lauds new candidate

Well known names among the crowd included interim party leader Bob Rae and St. Paul's MP Carolyn Bennett.

"It's very exciting," said Bennett, who supported Gordon. "It feels like a celebration. Now we get to roll up our sleeves and go to work."

Bennett said he was impressed with Gordon's campaign and his ability to communicate.

The Toronto-Danforth byelection will be interesting, she said. "A vibrant Asian community. A vibrant gay community ... sort of the best of downtown Toronto and we'll see what happens."

Haitas had kind words for Gordon, saying that he believes the important message is that they're reviving the Liberal Party.

On the abortion issue, Haitas said that he knows the party is pro-choice. "I respect that but I also respect democracy and everybody has their choice to choose what they want to do with their body," he said.

He said he had no comment on Liberals for Life. "I do know that they exist but I don't know them," he said. "I know that they have concerns and I respect their concerns just as much as I respect the concerns of all the citizens of our community."

Anti-abortion group sent 'urgent message'

Liberals for Life had issued an "urgent message" to Liberals in the riding, urging them to support Haitas, who formerly ran for the Green party.  

"Trifon Haitas is the only candidate who is committed to stop the slaughter of unborn children in Canada," the electronic message said.  

The message included a link to an endorsement of Haitas by Campaign Life Coalition, a national organization opposed to abortion.  

Liberals for Life spearheaded a move to take over dormant riding associations and nominate anti-abortion candidates in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the party was in a weakened state.  

The group seemed to disappear after 1992, when Liberals gave their party leader the power to appoint candidates — a move aimed squarely at pre-empting takeover attempts by single-issue groups, although it was eventually used for other purposes.

However, at last month's Liberal convention, delegates expressed concern that conditions are once again ripe for an attempted takeover by single-issue groups, given that the party was reduced to a historic low of 34 seats in last May's election.   Party officials estimate Liberal associations are dormant in some 80 ridings across the country and weak in many others.  

Rae said he was unaware of Haitas's views and had seen no signs of a re-emergence of Liberals for Life or any other single-interest group trying to take over Toronto-Danforth or other ridings.   

With files from The Canadian Press